Kevin Drum

Scientists Say "Trust Us" on Blood Pressure Study

| Fri Sep. 11, 2015 11:58 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on a big U-turn in the study of low blood pressure:

Declaring they had “potentially lifesaving information,” federal health officials said on Friday that they were ending a major study more than a year early because it has already conclusively answered a question cardiologists have puzzled over for decades: how low should blood pressure go? The answer: way lower than the current guidelines.

....Less than two years ago, a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute panel went the opposite direction. People had been told to aim for a systolic blood pressure of 140. But the panel recommended a goal of 150 for people ages 60 and older, arguing that there were no convincing data showing lower is better.

Given the fact that this represents a major change to a recommendation from two years ago, it would be nice to see the data. And yet, apparently it hasn't been released. Austin Frakt is annoyed:

I have high blood pressure, so this is of more than academic interest to me. I've also heard plenty of horror stories of people being massively overmedicated in an effort to get their blood pressure below some magical target. So if you want me to get my systolic blood pressure down to 110 or so, you'd better have some mighty convincing data.

But of course, this is not about me me me. Frakt is right: this is just bad science, and it's especially bad in the areas of health and nutrition, which are overrun with both crankery and constantly changing recommendations. If you have big news, release it in a reputable journal and let other experts take a look at it. Don't announce blockbuster findings and then promise that "a paper with the data would be published within a few months." This is not the way to do things.

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A Unified Theory of Conservative Crankery Isn't So Hard

| Fri Sep. 11, 2015 11:23 AM EDT

Paul Krugman is musing about conservative crankdom:

Notice that the ludicrous claim that most of the revenue effects of huge tax cuts would be offset by higher growth comes from economists who, like Jeb!, are very much establishment figures — but who evidently find that the partisan requirement that they support voodoo outweighs any fear of damage to their professional reputations.

While the intellectual implosion of the GOP is obvious, however, it’s less obvious what is driving it....The thing is, there isn’t anything comparable on the other side. You can find cranky individuals on the left, but mainstream Democratic politicians don’t feel the need to support, say, extreme anti-GMO positions. There are interest groups with a lot of influence on Democratic politics, like teachers’ unions, but supporting bad economic theories that serve their interests isn’t a litmus test for establishment politicians.

All of this leads to a further question, which is why the GOP is the party of apparatchiks and cranks. I don’t yet have a deep answer.

I don't know that I'd overthink this. Krugman points to two varieties of economic crankery—tax-cut fever and inflation paranoia—but I don't think there's any big mystery there. As Krugman points out, supply-side tax nonsense is obviously driven by the desires of rich people. And I think inflation paranoia comes from the same place. It's a bit of a mystery why rich people are so worried about inflation, but they are.

Other subjects are similar. The claim that global warming is a hoax is obviously driven by the desire not to address global warming, which would require offending the interests of lots of rich business donors. Anti-evolution crankery is a little different, but it's basically harmless and it doesn't offend powerful interests, so there's no reason not to play along with it.

There are other bits of crankery here and there that are driven by base politics, but in the end, the versions of conservative crankery that really matter nearly always come down to pandering to the rich at all costs—or, at the very least, doing nothing to offend them. Whatever else you can say about the Republican Party, it knows who's in charge and it always has. This is starting to create some seismic faults that are likely to cause them a lot of angst in the near future, but for now, it's the wealthy uber alles.

Parents Sure Are Keen on Their Kids Becoming Pro Athletes

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 6:20 PM EDT

Here's a curiosity. According to a new poll, 26 percent of parents of high school athletes hope their kids will turn pro someday. This rises to 39 percent among parents who earn less than $50,000 per year. As Christopher Ingraham points out, this is pretty ridiculous. Fewer than 1 percent of high school athletes—way fewer than 1 percent—ever make it to the show.

And it's actually even more ridiculous than that. If your kid isn't already a star athlete by high school, the chances of going pro drop to basically zero. There's no way that 39 percent of these folks are the parents of star athletes.

This makes me curious about what this poll really means. Do parents "hope" their kids become pro athletes the same way they hope to win the lottery someday? As in, it's nice to dream about, but it's probably not going to happen. Or do they hope in the same way they hope to buy a new car next year? As in, with a little luck and some hard work our dream could come true. These are two very different things.

If it's mostly the former, no harm done. I'd like to win the lottery too. But if it's mostly the latter, America must be chock full of really disappointed parents. Maybe that explains something.

Scott Walker No Longer Understands His Own Base

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 3:00 PM EDT

A few days ago Scott Walker refused to answer a question about Syrian refugees because "I'm not president today, and I can't be president today." This was a novel take on presidential campaign questions, which are—for obvious reasons—all about what you'd do as president. But apparently Walker decided it was unfair to ask him about that before he actually became president. He left unclear what kinds of questions would be left for reporters to ask him.

Today, unsurprisingly, Walker changed his tune. He decided to "clarify" his answer, which turned out to be simple: he doesn't want the US to take in any more Syrian refugees. We take in plenty already. Instead, he wants to increase our bombing campaign against ISIS. This would probably make the refugee crisis worse, but whatever.

I say that Walker's clarification was unsurprising because he's really made a habit of this. Steve Benen provides the blow-by-blow:

Walker’s pattern of stumbling only reinforces doubts about his strength as a national candidate. TPM’s Caitlin MacNeal noted a series of issues and controversies — Kentucky’s Kim Davis, whether sexual orientation is a choice, evolutionary biology, President Obama’s patriotism and religion — on which Walker couldn’t or wouldn’t share his position publicly.

There are a variety of other issues — birthright citizenship, Boy Scouts, building a Canadian border wall — on which Walker managed to state an opinion, but soon after, that position proved untenable, forcing him to “clarify” his actual beliefs. Asked about Walker last week, an Iowa Republican told Politico, in advance of this week’s incident, “For the last two months [Walker] hasn’t made a single policy pronouncement that he or his staff hasn’t had to clarify or clear up within two hours.”

When the campaign began, I was pretty bullish on Walker. He seemed to have the right combination of respectability and pit-bull snarl to appeal to a wide variety of voters. And since he's had a long political career, including four years as Wisconsin governor, he'd have a pretty good handle on campaigning.

But no. It turns out he barely has a clue about campaigning. Has this always been the case, or has the rise of Donald Trump completely flummoxed him? Maybe a bit of both, but I think he's really let Trump get inside his head. He planned to campaign pretty far to the right, and when Trump took that away from him he didn't seem to know what to do. Agree with Trump? Then he's just a follower. Disagree with Trump? But that could be dangerous if the base is really enthralled with the guy. What to do?

The answer, apparently, is to make it clear that he has no considered views of anything and merely wants to say whatever will make the tea partiers happy. But he no longer knows what that is. So he tap dances desperately, but does it so bumblingly that he just embarrasses himself. At this point, it's not clear if he'll ever get his act together.

Even Conservatives Agree That Jeb Bush's Tax Plan Is a Huge Boon for the Rich.

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

The Tax Foundation is a conservative outfit that's predisposed to like Jeb Bush's tax plan. They believe it will increase GDP by 10 percent over the long term, which will pay for more than half of the plan's cost. Jeb's tax cuts, they conclude, "would greatly increase the U.S. economy’s size in the long run, leading to higher incomes for taxpayers at all income levels."

All income levels? Well, yes. But there are incomes and there are incomes, and some do better than others under Jeb's plan. Can you guess which ones? Huh? Can you?

It turns out that even the Tax Foundation can't make Jeb's plan look anything close to fair. Under a normal (i.e., "static") estimate, here are the effects on income:

  • Poor: +1.8 percent
  • Middle class: +2.8 percent
  • Rich: +11.6 percent

Yowza! That looks pretty bad. Something has to be done about this, so let's do a "dynamic" estimate that assumes these tax cuts will hypercharge the economy. That helps, but not enough:

  • Poor: +10 percent
  • Middle class: +12.7 percent
  • Rich: +16.4 percent

The Tax Foundation has a very rosy view of dynamic effects, which are almost certainly far less than they estimate. But even if you take their analysis at face value, Jeb's tax plan is still tilted heavily toward the rich. They don't just get a bigger cut in absolute dollars, they get a bigger percentage cut.

That's not surprising. When credulous reporters are around, Jeb's team highlights the plan's cap on deductions and its elimination of the carried interest loophole. But that's small potatoes compared to the huge rate cut at the top, the elimination of estate taxes, and the cut in the corporate tax rate. The end result is the usual one for Republicans: the rich get a big tax cut while the poor are bought off with beads and trinkets.

Judge Rules That Boehner Can Sue Obama — And That's a Good Thing

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 1:05 PM EDT

A federal judge has ruled that John Boehner's lawsuit against Obamacare can proceed:

U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled Wednesday that the House can pursue its claim that the administration violated the Constitution when it spent public money that was not appropriated by Congress....The House argues that Congress never specifically approved spending that money, and denied the administration’s request for it. The Obama administration insists it is instead relying on previously allocated money that it is allowed to use.

I'm pleased by this ruling even though I suspect Boehner's suit is specious. Let me explain why.

Collyer ruled today only on the narrow grounds of whether the House, as an institution, has standing to sue the administration in the first place. The rule currently in place makes this almost impossible. You're allowed to sue only if you can show that you've been harmed in some way, and members of Congress usually can't show that an executive branch interpretation of a law does them any specific harm. But in many cases, no one else can show harm either. It's not enough to merely be a taxpayer, and argue that your taxes are being misused. You have to show particularized harm.

The upshot of this is that sometimes there's virtually no one with standing to sue even though there's a legitimate disagreement that needs to be adjudicated. This has always rubbed me the wrong way. As long as a complaint isn't obviously frivolous, there ought to be someone who can take it to court in a reasonably expedient way.

The justification for the current state of affairs is that courts shouldn't get involved in political disputes between two branches of government. This is, generally speaking, probably wise. But Collyer ruled that Boehner's suit was not merely a complaint about the executive's implementation of a law—for which the House would indeed lack standing. It's an argument that the executive branch has specifically violated the Constitution by spending money that Congress hasn't appropriated:

The Non-Appropriation Theory is not about the implementation, interpretation, or execution of any federal statute. It is a complaint that the Executive has drawn funds from the Treasury without a congressional appropriation.

....The Congress (of which the House and Senate are equal) is the only body empowered by the Constitution to adopt laws directing monies to be spent from the U.S. Treasury....Yet this constitutional structure would collapse, and the role of the House would be meaningless, if the Executive could circumvent the appropriations process and spend funds however it pleases. If such actions are taken, in contravention of the specific proscription in [Article 1 of the Constitution], the House as an institution has standing to sue.

It would be unwise in the extreme to allow any House member to sue the president anytime they were unhappy about a law. That way lies madness, and it's what standing is all about. You can't just sue willy nilly because you think it would make a nice headline. But in this case, Collyer has ruled fairly narrowly. This case is not about mere implementation, but about a core responsibility of the House. It was not brought by a single member of Congress, but by the House as an institution. And it's a case in which it's unlikely that anyone else could show standing. I'm pretty satisfied with that. As long as it's sustained on suitably narrow grounds, I hope that Collyer is upheld on appeal.

POSTSCRIPT: You'll notice that I said nothing about the actual case itself. That's because I wanted to focus solely on whether the House should have standing to even bring a complaint in the first place.

As it happens, the suit is over a part of Obamacare called Cost Sharing Reduction, which pays out money to insurance companies in order to lower premiums for the poor. And although the House might have standing to sue, I expect the suit will eventually fail on the merits. I find this argument, from Jordan Weissmann, persuasive:

Even if they win the right to argue their case, the House Republicans' argument might be a lot more feeble than it looks, as David Super, a Georgetown University law professor, explained to me. By passing the Affordable Care Act and instructing the administration to pay insurers their subsidies, Super said, Congress effectively appropriated the funds to do it. "The Supreme Court has been very clear that you do not have to have a law that says 'appropriations' across the top. You just need a law directing that the money be spent," he said.

 But there are even deeper reasons the case might not in fact be a very effective weapon against Obamacare. If the administration did lose at court, insurers would still be entitled to their subsidy payments under the law. Therefore, they could simply file their own suit against the federal government at the Court of Federal Claims and collect the money owed to them.

 “Even if one imagines this case winning, which I have great difficulty imagining, the result would be that the insurers would have to take a few extra steps to get reimbursed, not that the money would not flow," Super said. "In cases like that, the courts have generally been pragmatic, and not required the filing of a lawsuit that everybody knows would win.”

But you never know what the Supreme Court might do these days. Maybe the conservative bloc is tired of endlessly adjudicating Obamacare complaints and will throw out the case. Or maybe they regret letting Obama win the previous cases, and will use this opportunity to give him a little bit of a black eye. Who knows? But unless a higher court reverses Collyer on standing, we'll find out in a couple of years.

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Here's What Common Core Does to Our Schools

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 12:13 PM EDT

Conservatives used to like the new Common Core education standards. Then Obama got elected and they changed their minds. It's lately become something like Agenda 21 or Benghazi: an offense against liberty and decency that's a reliable crowd pleaser for Republicans even if the crowd doesn't really know what Common Core is. But it doesn't matter. It's somehow part of a shadowy Obama takeover of our schools, and that's enough.

But if you want to know what Common Core really does to our schools, California is here to help you understand:

Echoing a nationwide downward trend, most California students are falling short of state learning targets and are not on track to succeed in college, according to the results of new, more rigorous standardized tests released Wednesday.

....Questions based on the new “Common Core” standards, which have been adopted in 42 states, are more difficult than those on California's previous test....Students are given questions that require deeper thinking about a theme in literature, for example, or about the concepts of algebra or geometry. They get more or less difficult based on which ones a student answers correctly, and in theory no two students will be presented with exactly the same test.

One of the favorite tricks of state education departments is to subtly manipulate their tests so that their schools look better than they are. It's an especially popular ruse in red states, and one that Common Core makes harder to pull off. Does this have anything to do with the oddly convenient conservative backlash against Common Core? Maybe, but that would be an awfully cynical suggestion, wouldn't it? For now, it's probably best to stick with reliable old Obama Derangement Syndrome instead. It's usually sufficient.

The War on Women Has Been Lost — By Poor Women, Anyway

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

Molly Redden writes today that the war on women is largely over, and women have lost:

This is what 2015 looks like: Abortion providers struggle against overwhelming odds to stay open, while women "turn themselves into pretzels" to get to them, as one researcher put it. Activists have been calling it the "war on women." But the onslaught of new abortion restrictions has been so successful, so strategically designed, and so well coordinated that the war in many places has essentially been lost.

Most abortions today involve some combination of endless wait, interminable journey, military-level coordination, and lots of money. Roe v. Wade was supposed to put an end to women crossing state lines for their abortions. But while reporting this story, I learned of women who drove from Kentucky to New Jersey, or flew from Texas to Washington, DC, because it was the only way they could have the procedure. Even where laws can't quite make it impossible for abortion clinics to stay open—they are closing down at a rate of 1.5 every single week—they can make it exhausting to operate one. In every corner of America, four years of unrelenting assaults on reproductive rights have transformed all facets of giving an abortion or getting one—possibly for good.

The whole piece is worth reading, but I just want to add one comment. This is the least original comment possible, but here it is: it's really only poor women in red states who have lost this war. Prosperous women in red states can easily purchase a quiet flight to a nearby Sodom if they need an abortion. And most women in blue states still have reasonable access to abortions.

That's why this tidal wave of new abortion restrictions hasn't gotten more attention than it has. If it were happening in blue states, there would be a revolt. If it were inconveniencing affluent women in red states, there would be a revolt. But poor women in Republican-controlled flyover country? Plenty of people care about them—but not enough to mount a revolt. And of course, poor women themselves have no political power of their own. As it is so often, the lesson here is that you can get away with almost anything, as long as you do it to poor people who are far away.

The Only Thing You Need to Know About Kate's Law Is Its Name

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 10:40 AM EDT

Here's a nearly unbreakable law of legislating: anything named _____'s Law is a bad idea. It's a flashing neon sign that says the proposed law is an emotional response to a single incident and will probably do more harm than good. With that in mind, the only good news in the Matt Ford story below is that this is the first I've heard of it:

In July, a group of legislators introduced the Establishing Mandatory Minimums for Illegal Reentry Act of 2015, popularly known as Kate’s Law. On Wednesday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission estimated that Kate’s Law would expand the federal prison population by over 57,000 prisoners, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit organization that supporters sentencing reform.

Kate’s Law is named after Kate Steinle, who died on July 1 after being shot on Pier 14 in San Francisco. Police arrested Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican national and convicted felon who was in the United States illegally, and charged him with Steinle’s murder. Lopez-Sanchez subsequently admitted to firing the gun, but claimed Steinle was not the target and that her death was accidental.

The Trump-esque idea behind this bill is to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who has been previously deported and then comes back. Currently the penalty is a fine or a maximum of two years imprisonment (or both). Under Kate's Law, it would be a minimum of five years in prison. If the original deportation was due to committing a crime, the mandatory minimum is even higher. So what will this accomplish?

Despite the public rancor, immigrants are generally less likely to commit crimes than the native population, according to the The Wall Street Journal. Mandatory minimums are generally ineffective at reducing crime or recidivism. Anti-illegal-immigration advocates who complain about the burden on the American taxpayer might find a 28 percent increase in the federal prison budget counterproductive. But these are relatively minor points in the debate. What matters is the all-too-familiar refrain: Something must be done.

Over the past few years, the public has finally figured out that violent crime is way down, and this has opened the door for legislators to start thinking about criminal justice reform. Maybe we don't need to fill our prisons to bursting with long sentences for every crime in the book. It's an idea whose support is broad and bipartisan, but probably very shallow. As Kate's Law suggests, all it takes is one high-profile incident and suddenly it's time to get back on the mass incarceration bandwagon.

But like I said, this is the first I've heard of it. That might mean only that Fox News hasn't really revved up yet, or it might mean that it's such an obvious campaign gimmick (it's the brainchild of Ted Cruz, naturally) that it doesn't have much support in Congress. We can always hope.

Is the Army Cooking the Books on ISIS and Iraq?

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 9:50 AM EDT

The Daily Beast reports that defense analysts are in revolt over what they see as too much happy talk about ISIS that doesn't reflect their actual views:

Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are....That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months.

....Some of those CENTCOM analysts described the sizeable cadre of protesting analysts as a “revolt” by intelligence professionals who are paid to give their honest assessment, based on facts, and not to be influenced by national-level policy. The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the commander in charge of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress.

....But the complaint also goes beyond alleged altering of reports and accuses some senior leaders at CENTCOM of creating an unprofessional work environment. One person who knows the contents of the written complaint sent to the inspector general said it used the word “Stalinist” to describe the tone set by officials overseeing CENTCOM’s analysis.

Hmmm. The "Stalinist" jibe sets off some alarm bells. It could mean one of two things: (a) the work climate at CENTCOM is really, really bad, or (b) the senior analysts who filed the complaint are cuckoo. For better or worse, I usually associate accusations of Stalinism with all-upper case rants written by lunatics.

Still, even if one guy is a little over the top, there are 50 more apparently willing to sign on to the general complaint:

Many described a climate in which analysts felt they could not give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria. Some felt it was a product of commanders protecting their career advancement by putting the best spin on the war.

....For some, who have served at CENTCOM for more than a decade, scars remained from the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, when poorly written intelligence reports suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when it did not, formed the basis of the George W. Bush administration’s case for war. “They were frustrated because they didn’t do the right thing then” and speak up about their doubts on Iraq’s weapons program, the defense official told The Daily Beast.

If this turns out to be true, I wonder what's really going on. My sense is that the Obama administration itself hasn't been especially inclined to rosy scenarios. The Daily Beast article tried to find examples of sunny public statements from Obama officials and didn't come up with much. But it's quite possible that commanders on the ground are loath to admit how poorly things are going, and are insisting that analysts do nothing to muddy the waters.

In any case, now that the scope of these complaints are public, it will be hard for either the administration or CENTCOM to ignore them. Perhaps as a result we'll finally find out what's really happening in Iraq.